Time travel stories can be some of the most enjoyable, as well as some of the most complex science fiction stories. When done well, they’re intricately plotted and deal with a number of complexities that can be difficult to follow. For tenacious readers who aren’t afraid to work things out or engage in multiple readings, they can be very rewarding. One of the problems with this sub-genre of science fiction is that most stories tend to unravel and fail to hold up under scrutiny. The usual culprit for a poorly constructed time travel story is the time paradox. In The Red Wing, a four-issue miniseries by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra, paradoxes aren’t a problem. We’re told early on in the collection that “Time is not linear. There is no paradox.”
In The Red Wing, the plot, the themes, and Hickman’s theory on time travel are intricately linked together. Take one element out of the equation and the rests fall apart. Hickman’s version of time travel is non-linear which affects the causality of actions done in various time periods. In an unspecified time in our future, attacks from flying harvesters collecting a variety of natural and manmade resources are stripping the past (their past, the story’s protagonists’ present) to bring back to their future time period. As a mode of defence to these attacks, special aircrafts are constructed which allow pilots to fight across time and pursue the futuristic raiders in hopes of destroying them and preventing more attacks. Considering the attacks are being issued from a future time period, it’s very unlikely that they will ever end, but efforts have to be made to preserve the quality of life of the present era, which is already in a poor state.
A large part of this story is focused on explaining Hickman’s concept of time and time travel. Related to this are many explanations on how time travel technology works and the way that it’s employed to wage war for the dominance of one time period over the other. Without a clear understanding of time travel as it exists in this comic, the reader can’t properly enjoy the more human and emotional story at its core.
Hickman’s concept of time, and therefore time travel, is cyclical. This is represented by the use of the ouroboros in the design of the book. The ouroboros is the symbol of a snake or a dragon eating its own tale. It’s often circular in design and it represents the cyclical nature of life, a person, or whatever else it’s applied to. In this particular case, the ouroboros signifies the cyclical nature of all life and the nature of time. It’s a symbol that works well for Hickman’s concept of time as it can be used as visual short hand for time travel and the consequences of time travel. Time is even given a physical appearance in this comic. Periods of time are represented in standard sized circular slices which are stacked. When travelling back and forward in time, you jump from stack to stack, thus propelling you backward or forward in time.
Aside from the development of time travel as used in The Red Wing, many ideas about how time travel is done and the implications of it on individuals and society are also explored. Ideas such as how TAC pilots travel through time, the ways in which time travel is dangerous, what happens to lost pilots, and more are all included in the comic. It makes for a pretty complex story but Hickman and Pitarra manage to make it a quick read. Because of this storytelling paradox of complex ideas and easily digestible execution of the story, The Red Wing can seem a little slight upon first reading, but a more careful reading will unveil nice details. I don’t imagine this was an enjoyable story to read during its initial publication as I suspect readers struggled with keeping the story straight in their head while waiting a month for the next issue.
Hickman counterbalanced the focus on conceptualizations of time travel by infusing his story with the smaller and more personal story of the relationship between Robert Dorne and his son Dominic Dorne. Their story is centered on the idea of legacy and the difficulties inherent in forward thinking progress vs. backwards thinking progress. The practical application of time travel has changed the world. This is explored on a personal and individual level with Robert and Dominic who are both TAC fighter pilots. It’s also explored on a larger, societal level which parallels the more intimate story of father and son.
Time travel has affected how people look at life, the future, and their fate. All of society’s problems are blamed on the previous generation. Time travel allows a society to collectively strike back at their parents. The future generation in the comic do this by travelling back in time and stripping the past of its valuable resources. The cyclical nature of time is applied to ideas like recycling. It’s become increasingly important to recycle old materials because humanity’s survival now depends on it. After being attacked by a future generation, the present generation’s focus on war and defence has resulted in a lack of development in fields other than the military. War is the only major area of development. New TAC fighters are developed every decade or so, but the planet lies in ruins because of the devastation of war. Agriculture, a very basic requirement for the sustainability of civilization is in shambles in the present era. This should give you an understanding of the overall state of affairs that exists following the attacks from the future. Humanity now lives on a giant ring circling the planet, again, visually demonstrating the story’s circular motif.
All of these complex ideas must have been challenging to depict visually. That artist Nick Pitarra manages to illustrate this comic so well is very impressive. His character work is distinctive and his design of futuristic machines and vessels is convincing. Where he truly excels is in the cross-time action segments of the comic. Here his skill at shifting from one time period to another is on full display. Some of his pages, like those where the ravages of time on an individual and on machinery are rendered in great detail, are simply gorgeous. This was the first comic I’ve read with Pitarra on art and it was a pleasant discovery. His linework is reminiscent of Frank Quietly’s work. There is a nice fluidity to his art that I quite like. Pitarra’s art is nicely paired with Rachelle Rosenberg’s colours. She keeps thing simple by using a lot of blues but she peppers certain scenes with a subdued of colour. Scenes taking place in the past where vegetation still covered the earth forgo the blue. Other panels swap the blues with reds to accentuate important moments and make them pop.
The Red Wing is a story of three generations, a father lost in time, his son, and the circular nature of the story is use to comment on a particular concept of time and time travel. I enjoyed this comic more because of its ideas than for its execution of the story. Ideas are thrown around but not all of them get as developed as I would have liked them to be. I say this while realizing that a lot of ideas are developed. I guess I just wanted more and that’s a pretty good reaction to a comic. I appreciate Hickman’s inclusion of a more personal and emotional story as it helped to flesh out the comic and give it some depth.
As it is, the comic is short and it’s a quick read but it’s deceptive because there is a good amount of depth here, both in concept and in emotional story done through good character development. The story behind father and son, one lost in time and one learning to live with the legacy of his father overshadowing all of his accomplishments, adds much needed character moments into the story. The idea of legacy, of war making individuals face the reality and consequences of their actions and how individuals think of their legacy when facing oblivion are explored. In a cyclical concept of time, you cannot go back and change it. You can only try and affect your future and you always come back to where you originally started. Fate and free will are intertwined, much like how time travel theories and character development are mixed together to form a face paced science fiction story that is well worth your time.